Bertrand Bickersteth was born in Sierra Leone and raised in Alberta. In 2021, CBC named him a Black writer to watch. His collection of poetry, The Response of Weeds, was a finalist for multiple awards and won both the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry. His poetry is generally lyrical in style with a focus on Black identity, prairie blackness, landscape, geography and history. His influences include African American poets Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and Rita Dove, as well as Claire Harris, Dionne Brand, and Wayde Compton here in Canada. He currently teaches at Olds College.
Yes, but I didn't understand it. I had a sense that something was happening with the words that was skillful, magical even, but I couldn't pin it down. I just sensed it was happening. (That could have all been in my head.) There is no specific poem I remember from that age. I just remember the emotion of feeling awed and out of my depth.
I started writing poetry at around 13 or 14 years old. It was all very bad, very angsty teenage stuff. At the same time, it was very emotionally liberating to be able to express my feelings in words and in ways that felt creative and artistic to me. It was also very helpful in the beginning to develop my own voice. I realize now that you have to go through a certain amount of unoriginal, derivative writing before you can start to feel your way toward something that is more authentically your own. Those early, "bad" poems were instrumental in getting me there. Even though I don't remember any of those very early poems, I do remember certain milestone poems that felt like I had reached a new level each time. In fact I still remember whole chunks of what I consider my first "break-away" poem. It's called "Chasing the Spirit" and I wrote it when I was about 17. I guess it took years for me to get to the first step! After that poem, I started to think that writing poetry might be possible for me, but I didn't officially start thinking of myself as a poet for another two decades! Like a lot of people, I suppose I am my own worst critic. The thing that turned me into a poet was moving out of the country and then rethinking what it meant to be Canadian, what it meant to be Black, and what it meant to be a Black Canadian. There was something about being an actual foreigner in an actual foreign land that gave me a poetic certainty about myself.
I think a poet's job is to wrestle with language in new ways so that society can see itself in ways it never has before. If a poet can twist language to the point that it is inside out, they will undoubtedly be twisting themselves inside out too. And when a poet is twisted inside out, certain elements of the world the poet lives in will also be twisted inside out, and that will reveal new truths about old things. That's what I think a poet's job is.
The poem in your anthology, "The Bow," forms a part of a series of poems on rivers that flow through the prairies. There are two things that inspired me to write this poem. The first one, funny enough, is the idea that the prairies are defined by a lack of water. We think of the prairies as flat and boring and empty. We have no shores, we have no coast, we have nothing exciting. This of course turns out not to be true: we have lakes (some of them, like Slave Lake in Alberta and Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba are truly impressive and even "sea-like") and, of course, we have rivers. I became inspired by the idea of rivers coursing through the prairies like blood vessels nurturing a greater body. This perspective gave me the sense that water is actually everywhere throughout the boring, flat prairies. The second thing that inspired me was explorer history. Rivers were used as the primary way that Europeans used to chart the land when they first arrived here. Exploration, for me, is a kind of journeying that is both external (landscapes) and internal (identity). When we think of explorer history, though, we are tricked into thinking that Europeans "discovered" places and, in a way, are responsible for "creating" our present-day landscapes. This ignores the fact that Indigenous people were already here and knew the land intimately. It also ignores the fact that Europeans were not the only ones involved in exploration. I tried to turn this understanding inside out in "The Bow" by looking at Stephen Bonga, an explorer whose father was Black and whose mother was Indigenous. For me, the river was the perfect inspiration for exploring what prairie identity is and how it is really a confluence of multiple contradictory elements that manage to flow together.
Ada Limón's "How to Triumph Like a Girl." I love poems that celebrate a quality in people that is usually not noticed or, worse, not valued. I love the energy of this poem. I love its confidence and swagger. I love how it makes me feel like a powerful girl even though I'm not a girl! I absolutely love how every other line turns some common perception on its head. I can only imagine how it makes some girls feel and I really hope it helps to lift some girl, somewhere who, until she met this poem, didn't realize that, inside, she was "giant with power"!